Fire Blight in Pome Fruits

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

May is when fire blight peaks in apples, pears, Asian pears, and ornamentals such as crabapples and flowering pears from earlier flower infections. After bloom, shoot blights are common in new growth. We are seeing both currently.

The fire blight pathogen, (Erwinia amylovora), overwinters on branch cankers from the previous year’s infections. In spring, as temperatures warm, bacteria multiply at the edge of these cankers and create a yellow exudate that oozes on the bark surface several weeks ahead of bloom. Prior to bloom, insects that are attracted to the ooze, such as flies, spread the bacteria throughout the orchard. During bloom, pollinating insects (bees) spread the bacteria to the blooms. Blooms are susceptible to infection up to petal fall. Infections occur when temperature and moisture conditions are favorable, that is, greater than 60°F with free water (rain or dew). Infection symptoms will appear 1-4 weeks after bloom. In addition, shoot blights can occur when the inoculum is high in the orchard. Shoot tip infections occur most commonly on water sprouts and young shoots with about 10 leaves.

Figure 1: Fire Blight Shoot Strike

Figure 1. Fire Blight Shoot Strike

Symptoms of the blossom blight phase of fire blight will be the wilting and death of flower clusters which then can spread to the branch and kill portions of the branch. Areas turn dark in color (brown or black). Shoot infections appear as a wilt with a characteristic “shepherd’s crook” symptom. Shoot infections can also spread to nearby branches and even the main trunk. Fire blight infected areas are often called “strikes”. There are apple rootstocks that are highly susceptible to fire blight (M.26, M.9, Mark). If they become infected, the canker will infect the trunk of the rootstock below the graft union and the tree will decline over 1-2 year period. What makes this disease particularly devastating is that one flower or shoot infection has the potential to kill the whole tree (particularly in young orchards).

In fire blight susceptible orchards, prebloom sprays of copper fungicides can help reduce the bacteria on plant surfaces. Use bloom sprays of the antibiotic Streptomycin on a 3-7 day schedule when conditions are favorable (above 60° F, and >60% humidity). Post bloom Streptomycin sprays may also be needed with susceptible trees to control shoot blights.

According to Penn State, post-bloom, to prevent shoot blight, include a plant defense elicitor (example: Actigard 1–2 oz/A) or Apogee/Kudos (2–6 oz/A) in your streptomycin application to help limit potential shoot blight post petal fall. Spraying Cueva at 2 qt/A starting at petal fall has shown to limit shoot blight. This needs to be done on a weekly basis through approximately mid-June.

There are fire blight resistant apple and pear varieties and rootstocks. In our Delmarva production area, growers should consider using resistant varieties if they meet market and quality standards rather than trying to control the disease with sprays. Fire blight resistant apple rootstocks are also advised for our area.

Once fire blight “strikes” occur on branches, there is no curative action that can be taken. These strikes must be pruned out below the strike (8 inches below the visible discolored branch area) and destroyed. Do not leave the blighted pruning’s in the orchard. Also disinfest pruning shears and loppers between cuts using alcohol or bleach solutions to avoid inadvertent spread. If main trunks are infected, they should be cut 8 inches below the visible infection.